Theatre

Nor sleet nor snow nor gloom of Lear stays the Neptune from its task

HARRY BRUCE February 7 1977
Theatre

Nor sleet nor snow nor gloom of Lear stays the Neptune from its task

HARRY BRUCE February 7 1977

Nor sleet nor snow nor gloom of Lear stays the Neptune from its task

Theatre

“Blow winds, and crack your cheeks,” cried the doomed king during opening night of Neptune Theatre’s strange production of King Lear. “Rage! Blow!” And with that, the worst blizzard of the Halifax winter dutifully raged, blew and rattled the exit doors.

The Neptune is among the oldest, most honored and most heavily subsidized regional playhouses in Canada and. because 40 weeks had passed since it had last given Halifax a play, last month’s opening was easilv the most long-awaited since the first one in 1963 (Shaw's Major Barbara). Crafty advance publicity helped build anticipation. “The Neptune IS.” trumpeted newspaper advertisements to convince Halifax that declining subscriptions, inflation that sucks on grants, and the abandonment last year of Neptune’s traditional summer season had not killed the theatre. “Come on down!” pleaded an invitation to an open house. “See what Neptune's all about! Pick up a souvenir! Meet the actors and actresses!”

A month before opening night. Stratford vet Eric Donkin arrived to begin rehearsing the title role. Another Stratford vet. Max Helpmann, would play Gloucester (victim of thejuicy eve-gouging scene). Denise Fergusson and Patricia Gage, both with Stratford experience, would play Lear’s rotten daughters. Stratford people were making the cast’s wigs and jewelry; and Toronto “fibre artist" Peter Blais was designing wonderfully weird brown costumes. To counterbalance the imported professionalism. Neptune produced a perfect touch of community input: little old Bluenose ladies were crocheting 300 pounds of jute string to make the cloth for the 25 costumes.

This Lear was not majestic but it was intelligible and at three previews highschool kids gave it roaring, whistling, standing ovations. Everything seemed to be building nicely toward artistic director John Wood’s sweetest night since he’d arrived in Halifax in '74 and created a triumphant Godspell.

But the blizzard cursed opening night, and so did culture-writer Gretchen Pierce. She works for the Halifax Herald which, when it comes to drama reviews in the daily press, is the only game in town. Wood, stung bv Herald critic Basil Deakin’s unecstatic opinion of Neptune’s Hamlet in 1975. had bought ads in the paper to show off the more favorable review s of big-time Toronto critics. Now Pierce returned the favor. Wood's Lear, she decided, was hollow, more farcical than ter-

rifying, “an interminable three-and-a-half hours ... a creaking melodrama.”

Herbert Whittaker of The Globe and Mail cast a benign eve on the play two nights later, suggested Wood had guts for trying to stage Lear in Halifax, pronounced the show “always interesting and often compelling.” The Neptune bought space in the Herald to insert part of Whittaker's review, together with any other raves they could get their hands on. it's a rare small-city newspaper that can dump on a local enterprise and thereby increase ad revenue but the Herald, thanks to its drama critics, has now done it twice.

Still, there had been no cheers, no boos. The midnight patter of palms was a communal demonstration of damning-withfaint-praise; it might w'ell have inspired the entire company to echo Lear’s “Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?” Free-lance broadcaster Marjory Whitelaw said on CBC radio the show was, “Good, good, good! ... It made me catch my breath w ith pleasure.” Others felt it was bad. bad. bad. It made them catch their breath with boredom.

These were mostly members of Neptune’s sizable group of anti-fans. They disliked not only the production (“warmedover-Stratford”) but also Wood’s decision to choose the most depressing season of the year in which to impose on theatre-starved Haligonians a notoriously dismal, difficult and bloody play. “King Lear." grumped an anti-fan who’d endured the two hours before the only intermission, “is a downer.”

But the criticism goes deeper than Lear. Anti-fans believe Neptune’s lavish staging of plays by dead and foreign playwrights is irrelevant to Bluenose interests. Lear merely fed their suspicion that Neptune's

imported artistic directors—Wood was born in Montreal, has worked in theatre across Canada—are less interested in pleasing Nova Scotian audiences than in impressing the people who can help them move away from Nova Scotian audiences. To Stratford, for instance.

Anti-fans lurk even on Neptune’s 32person board. They dislike Wood's plan for ’77: after Lear, it includes Peter Shaffer's Equus ( in which a stableboy blinds six horses); a spring repertory, which will tour Nova Scotia with Gilbert And Sullivan Tonight. Molière’s farce Scapin. and W. O. Mitchell’s Back To Beulah; and a summer festival, which consists of Paul Zindel’s The Effect Oj Gamma Rays On Man-InThe-Moon-Marigolds and Gypsy, the workhorse musical. Some board members regard this lineup as an unimaginative way to blow money and, according to Neptune insiders, it caused a boardroom crisis. The Canada Council, however, provides almost $300.000 of Neptune’s $750.000 budget and the council insisted its duty was to back artists, not boards. Wood won.

Maybe he would even win with Lear. A week after opening night, Neptune ads declared “Sold Out Tonight.” This was a white lie—as late as 6 p.m. you could still choose from among unsold seats upstairs and downstairs—but tickets w'ere selling briskly enough to suggest that nothing, not even a brown January Lear and damnation by the Herald, could conquer some Haligonians’ love of live theatre.

Meanwhile, as a sequel to the Neptunesponsored roast of Robert Stanfield (which netted $12.000 in ’75). the theatre planned a midwinter roast of Joseph R. Smallwood. It promised to be a night of theatre everyone could enjoy. HARRY BRUCE